Nashville: My Place Matters, Opening Plenary

It has been a wild few days. I meant to post this earlier but was struck down with a crazy head cold.  Sad that I missed the partner’s reception but the early bedtime put me in a much better position to enjoy yesterday’s events.

First though–I wanted to say a few things about an event I worked on Tuesday. Charlotte Bonini (Senior Education Planner for the National Trust for Historic Preservation), Kimberly Nyberg (director of the Tennessee Main Street Program), Andrea Blackman (Director of Special Collections at the Nashville Public Library), and Kathryn Bennett (Librarian at Hillwood High School) put together a program for a group of fifth graders from Rose Park Magnet School. Called My Place Matters the goal of the program was to introduce kids to the role of historic places in their lives and get them thinking about why places matter on many levels. It was inspirational and I have to say those kids were some of the smartest kids I have ever had the opportunity to speak to.

The first half of the program took place in the Nashville Public Library. The first stop was the Young Adult Room where the kids showed us pictures of places that matter to them why they matter to them. It didn’t take long for them to make the connections between why their places matter and why historic buildings are important to preserve. The second room was the Special Collections room where the kids had an introduction to some of the very cool features offered by the Nashville Public Library everything from lesson plans, oral histories and videos.

The third part of the library the kids stopped at was the Civil Rights Room where a quotation from Martin Luther King Jr. sums up the story of Civil Rights in this city: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the Great Movement that has taken place in this community.” The Nashville Public Library stands where many of the events during the Civil War occurred. The room is dotted with images of the marches, sit ins and boycotts from this era. The students were treated with lectures from two of the participants from the demonstrations–Rip Patton and Frankie Henry. Rip talked to the kids about the  non-violence doctrine and at one point a little girl looked at him and said–“You keep saying we did this…were you a part of the demonstrations?” When he said yes, the resulting awe revealed just how much the kids had internalized what had happened.  They were most shocked by the stories from Frankie which revealed just how strong you had to be in the face of resistance.  She explained how at the age of 19 she had sat at a lunch counter and had been deliberately burned by a cigarette, and despite wanting to fight back the rules of non-violence meant she just had to take it.  In talking with my group afterward I was surprised by how much they recognized the importance of that moment–that the movement was too important and too big to fight back. That non-violence was key to accomplishing their goals.

The second part of the program involved a walking tour around Nashville where the kids took a look around at the buildings that make up this neighborhood, focusing on details with a Zoomer (a rolled up piece of paper that served as a telescopic focusing device) and sketching in their My Place Matters sketchpad. It was a great exercise in revealing the connections between space, place, history and the past and I know the teachers and students involved all walked away excited and energized.

So that was Tuesday. Yesterday, I attended the Opening Plenary where Dame Fiona Reynolds and Bill McKibben served as keynote speakers. It kicked off with some great music by singer/songwriter Dave Berg. I live twittered through the entire thing so you can check out some of my thoughts on my Twitter Feed @pc_presnation. For the purpose of this post I want to talk about how both Dame Fiona Reynolds and Bill McKibben underscored the theme for this year’s conference–which is Sustaining the Future in Harmony with our Pasts. Dame Reynolds spoke about how we’re moving past seeing preservation as a luxury, something we should think about only when we have money. She described how the UK National Trust has started up a bunch of programs involving sustainability but has tailored those programs to be simple, useful and meaningful. The one that Dame Reynolds highlighted dealt with the idea of growing produce seasonally and how they are cultivating sections of of their land for gardens that will be used in their various restaurants across the country.

The second keynote speaker, Bill McKibben talked about his cause which is what scientists say is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and how the Copenhagen talks in December on climate change may very well be the most important meeting of our lifetime. For us historians, I think his point was driven home when he talked about our sense of place and space and how climate change relates to that. He says that how we relate to these places won’t be the same anymore.  One of the best examples he gave involved Robert Frost’s home in Vermont.  How will we, as human beings, contextualize his poems that talk about the snowy wood when there is no snow in Vermont?  So much of what we do as public historians (and preservationists) depends on the materiality of the past and making those physical connections between what we know of the world around us and what we know existed in the past.  Just as those kids in the My Space Matters program were asked to take something familiar and extrapolate out to understand how places matter, McKibben is saying unless we do something about carbon emissions we won’t have those familiar links that define our very identities.

Something to think about.

Pictures to come later.

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